11 reasons the Lisbon Metro blows every other transport system out of the water

Telheiras station. Image: Cornelius/Wikimedia Commons.

Subways are great. It’s an undeniable fact. They’re speedy, spacious, don’t take up space above ground, and, depending on the design, can make you feel like you’ve been catapulted back to the ‘60s, or forward to, well, the ‘60s. But only one can be the best – and that one is the Lisbon Metro.

Here are 11 reasons why.

There are just six interchanges – and two zones

Subways are great – but they're not so great if you’re got a hopeless sense of direction, as anyone who’s had to battle through NYC City’s some 468 stations will tell you (yeah, we can’t really work out how many there are). No such larks in Lisbon, there are just six interchanges on the whole network.

The inevitable map. There are also zones 2 & 3 further out, but the metro doesn't go that far.

Sure, you might not quite have the scope of the Big Apple to play with, but the apple isn’t real anyway and custard tarts are better. Plus it still gets you pretty much everywhere you want to go, minus the fights about which route is quickest. What’s more there are only two zones, so you don’t have to work out the most convoluted route in the world just to avoid Shoreditch High Street on the Overground.

This said, zone two (which is confusingly called zone one; the central zone is zone L, for Lisbon) only actually has three stops in it, so it’d be a bit of a bummer if you ended up living there.

They’ve totally embraced naming lines by colours

Tourists don’t get tube systems. Locals end up explaining to tourists using the colours of the line. This is the rule of any metro system, and who are we to change fundamental human nature?

The development of the network, 1959-2012. Image: EpicGenius/Wikimedia Commons.

So, imagine my wonder upon discovering that the Lisbon Metro is all about those coloured lines. There’s a yellow line: it’s called the yellow line. The red line is called the red line. The green line is named in honour of the colour I turned in envy when I saw this deliciously simple system. Which is, for the avoidance of any doubt, green.


The stations are accessible

Getting around the UK using public transport can be chaos as it is, let alone if you need to use accessible stations and trains. It’s been some some 26 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (later replaced by the Equality Act in 2010), which protects disabled people from discrimination across wider society, came into force; yet something as simple as getting on the tube can still be a massive issue.

Just 73 of London Undergrounds 270 tube stations offer step free access, only slightly more than a quarter. An extra £200m was committed to created a step-free tube in 2016, but even this will only take the number to 100 – which eagle eyed mathematicians will note is still less than half.

Jump over to Lisbon, and while it’s by no means a perfect picture, 30 of the 50 stations are marked as having disabled access: that works out at 60 per cent.

It’s gloriously unbusy. Like, really

No, really. It was so un-busy the first time I got it I went back during ‘rush hour’ on purpose and it looked like this.

Where is everybody? 

There are countdown clocks which operate by the second

I’m from a village in rural North Devon, which means getting public transport is an exercise involving looking at a damp timetable stuck to a lamppost and hoping something might turn up in the next hour. Even in most bigger cities, the metro system will only give you the time you’ll be waiting for your train in minutes.

Lisbon pulls out all the stops though, and you can see how many seconds – yes, seconds – it is until your tube is going to arrive Your dreams of being able to sing countdown as tube arrives have come true.

Note the countdown. 

The hanging cords don’t swing and smack you

It’s a commuters worst nightmare: not only are you packed five centimetres closer to another human being than you’d ever wish to be, but then the stupid cord you’re supposedly hanging onto for support crashes you into them full frontal.

Not so in Lisbon, where the hanging cords are made of sturdier stuff, and your personal boundaries can live to see another dawn.

There’s a refreshing lack of adverts

In the interests of transparency, I’d like to state at this point that I did track down some ads – namely one for Burger King and a Simon & Garfunkel gig, which sounds like a wild night – but nowhere near the scale you’d see here in the UK. In fact, these were the only two I found.

A recent report from Transport for London showed they were the biggest holder of advertising space in the UK. In 2016-17, it hosted some 16,000 different adverts drawing in some £142.1m in cash by bombarding Londoners with pictures of West End shows, weird head skull shavers, and essays about Jack Daniels posted on literally any available space.

While I accept it’s a good money earner, it’s a bit of cheek that the operator say commuters actually appreciate the distraction.The latest TfL report claims that 60 per cent of commuters say adverts are a welcome distraction. Did they even notice the Clapham Common cats campaign?

I, for one, am all on board with the Portuguese approach and freedom to daydream. Hell, they’ve got the advertising spaces, they just haven’t filled them up.

There’s 4G on all the lines

Yep, even underground. It’s magical. I’m not entirely convinced it’s planned, but it’s pretty great.


Tickets are valid for 24 hours from the point of use

This is honestly a revolution, and is probably the last serious point we’ve got for you, but golly it’s a good one. It’s a simple premise: buy your day ticket and it’s then valid for 24 hours from first use. So if you buy it at 3pm on a Sunday, it’s valid until 3pm on Monday.

By way of contrast, if you find yourself in a similar situation in London, your day pass will only work up until the last tube that day.

You also don’t need a deposit to get a reusable card. The Lisbon Metro dolls out reusable (and non plastic) cards for a mere €0.50 a time.

There’s an announcement that sounds like a friendly grandfather clock

The beeps of commuter trains haunt me in my sleep. This, though, sounds just like the grandfather clock in my nan and grandfathers’ house. Cute.

It’s in Lisbon

The Tyne & Wear Metro might go to the beach, but it’s not quite the same.

Uncredited images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.